Last night, hopes of a $15 minimum wage hit a major stumbling block. Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate Parliamentarian, ruled that a provision of the third Covid-19 stimulus package that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ineligible for budget reconciliation. If Senate Democrats want to continue using this process to pass the bill with a simple majority — instead of the usual 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster — they will need to either challenge MacDonough’s ruling or remove this provision. However, it’s unlikely that they have the votes for a simple majority, either.
Kamala Harris, who serves as President of the Senate through her position as vice president, has the authority to overrule MacDonough. However, she has refused to do so, despite the administration insisting that they are “absolutely committed” to a $15 minimum wage. Senate Democrats could also vote to overrule MacDonough (as they did in 2013 and Republicans did in 2017), or Chuck Schumer, as Senate Majority Leader, could simply fire her, as Republicans did to Robert Dove in 2001. The Democrats are not pursuing these options either, which raises the question: what exactly are they doing?
This situation illustrates a number of problems with the U.S. government as a system. The 60 votes required to prevent a filibuster is undemocratic, since it means that a majority alone is insufficient to pass legislation. It makes it especially difficult to pass legislation that deviates from politically moderate norms — that is, those on the right wing of the bourgeois political spectrum. Additionally, the Senate Parliamentarian is not an elected official — the U.S. population has no way of choosing them or holding them accountable. Furthermore, the decision for Harris to refuse to overturn the ruling was made internally within the White House, regardless of the wishes or needs of the population they are supposed to represent, two-thirds of whom support a $15 minimum wage.
Beyond the undemocratic nature of the Senate and its policies, the Democrats are clearly demonstrating that they are a fundamentally bourgeois party — their alliances do not lie with working people. If they truly wanted to raise the minimum wage as part of the stimulus package, they have several options they could pursue. Instead, they have chosen to prioritize governmental norms and procedures. This should come as no surprise. They are trying to balance two elements of their image as a party that are in conflict with each other: on the one hand, they want to portray themselves as the party that cares more about people’s suffering (unlike Trump); on the other hand, they want to portray themselves as the party that respects the institutions of government (also unlike Trump). The result is that they symbolically challenge the interests of capital only to the extent that it is politically beneficial, and not one step further. They’re willing to promote a higher minimum wage, but they aren’t willing to fight for it.
This is not a problem of individual politicians but of the deeply undemocratic structural nature and class character of the government and the Democratic Party overall. Voting in more progressive politicians may affect the details of how the story plays out — for example, Bernie Sanders is trying to pass an amendment that will pressure large companies into paying a $15 minimum wage in order to retain certain tax privileges and Ilhan Omar supports firing the parliamentarian — but it will not change the ultimate outcome. The purpose of the state is to manage class conflict in favor of the capitalists, and the system is designed in such a way that anyone who challenges this will be ultimately ineffectual, no matter the small reforms or local successes they may achieve. And even if the minimum wage was raised to $25, or $35, which would be a huge improvement for people’s living conditions, wage labor would still be fundamentally exploitative, prices would rise to compensate for increased wages, and the bosses and politicians would take the first opportunity available to attack these gains.
The basis of capitalism is the exploitation of the workers by the bosses, and no amount of reform will change that inherent fact of the system. That does not mean, of course, that we should throw our hands up and accept that nothing is to be done. Rather, we must fight for reforms such as a minimum wage hike through our own methods as workers, not by putting misplaced faith in capitalist parties who talk of reforms during election season and forget them as soon as they get elected. If we want to win a living wage for all workers, then we need to organize as workers to withhold our labor and demand the bosses to give us the concessions that we deserve. Through these means, we will both win the reforms and build working class power to eventually bring the entire exploitative system down.